Government's swine flu communications strategy comes under attack

LONDON - As the number of swine flu deaths rises in the UK, critics are circling the government, ready to attack over its handling of the pandemic.

The UK now has the third-highest number of confirmed cases in the world, behind Mexico and the US. It is not surprising, then, that this Thursday the government's much-vaunted National Pandemic Flu Service rolls out, albeit 10 months after the helpline was reportedly originally intended to launch.

The government has also been accused of sending out mixed messages. Within the past week, the Department of Health (DoH)  has been advising pregnant women to avoid big groups of people and non-essential travel. However, on Sunday it appeared to backtrack when the advice was pulled from the site.

Health Secretary Andy Burnham denies that guidance for pregnant women has changed, claiming it has always advised that this group should take extra precautions because they, and very young children, are among the most vulnerable to the virus. Nonetheless, the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGPs) has been widely reported as criticising the government, citing a 'lack of information and conflicting advice'.

Speaking to Marketing, Dr Maureen Baker, honorary secretary at the RCGPs, took a softer stance. 'We believe government advice has generally been consistent - good hand hygiene, catch it, bin it, kill it, stay at home if you have symptoms and contact NHS Direct or your GP by phone,' she says. 'It should be acknowledged that the government is managing a rapidly evolving situation, which first emerged less than three months ago.'

Authorities appeared to be caught on the back foot when the outbreak surfaced in April, rolling out a campaign by DDB London, based on an old strapline, 'Catch it. Kill it. Bin it'. This was originally developed by CST Advertising in anticipation of an avian-flu pandemic last year.

The agency's creative director, Dave Trott, questions the way the campaign has developed. 'I don't think what they've done is much good; it's just a bloke sneezing,' he says. 'Consumers need clear road signs, pictures of what they need to do. Every winter you see images of people sneezing, like on Kleenex ads. What the public need is answers.'

A spokesman for the DoH defends the simple message. 'The objective was to inform the public about good respiratory and hand hygiene as the most effective way to prevent the spread of flu,' he says.

Lucy Jameson, executive strategy director at DDB London, says it was best to present the information in a calm, factual manner. 'When communicating bad news you need to make sure people are given an action plan,' she says. 'That way they feel that action is being taken and they are in control of their own destiny.'

The DoH spokesman confirms that 'advertising plans are under development', while insiders say the DoH and COI are tweaking marketing plans based on the number of cases and projected fatalities.

Related article: Government draws up 'Code Red' communications strategy for swine flu



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